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History of English in multilingual India: A study in language contact and spread

by Arun Kumar Ph. D. 2 months ago in student

Arun Kumar Ph.D.

History of English in multilingual India: A study in language contact and spread
Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

The linguistic and cultural diversity among Homo sapiens is remarkable and difficult to fathom. Socio-linguistic identities are also very strong. At present there are thousands of languages and dialects spoken around the world. I strongly believe that languages are like biological species, they originate, evolve, and constantly change for a certain time and eventually becoming extinct. Traditionally people have lived in communities that were spread over limited geographical boundaries and had their own language for communication. The problem of inter-communal communication must have been quite severe in the past due to lack of a common language, and most probably was the source of misunderstandings, mistrust and conflicts.

English language was brought to India by the British. To understand the evolution of English in India, we need to explore the history of that period of time. As recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first Englishman visited India in A.D. 883. This Englishman named Sigelm was sent to India by King Alfred on a pilgrimage to fulfil a vow. In the year 1511, King Henry the VIII was given a petition stating, “The Indies are discovered, and the vast treasures brought from thence everyday. Let us bend our endeavours thitherwards.” Finally, the East India Company linking England with India for multifaceted relations was granted its first charter by Queen Elizabeth I on December 31, 1599 (Naik, 1982). Thus, English has been in India since the early 1600s, because of the East India Company trading in India and English missionaries becoming active in the Indian society. Joseph (2004) researched archival records of East India Company between A.D.1720-1840 and presented a vivid picture of Indian society that explained the use and spread of English in administrative, business, educational and trade activities in India.

Similarly, Iyengar (1973) published a monumental work on the history of English language and literature in India and presented a critical and comprehensive review of Indian writing in English. English began to take its roots in India with the landmark ruling of Macaulay’s Minute on Education in the British Parliament on March 7, 1835. This laid the foundation for English education in India as well as using the English language as a medium for all education in India. Raja Ram Mohan Roy supported Macaulay’s Minutes and was the first Indian to write in English though he was well versed in Sanskrit, Bengali, Persian and Arabic (Verghese 1971; Iyengar, 1973). A large number of Christian schools imparting education in English were set up by the early 1800’s (Kachru 1983). Later many colleges and universities were opened for imparting higher education in English. All these developments created an osmotic pressure in the Indian society and English gradually diffused among Indians. English became the official and the academic language of India by the early twentieth century. It now has national and international functions that are both distinct and complementary. It has thus acquired a “new power base and a new elitism” in India (Kachru 1986). To an extent English speaking elite lead India’s economic, industrial, professional, political, and social life. Even though English is primarily a second language for these persons, it is the medium in which a great number of the interactions in the above domains are carried out.

Indian languages and multilingual communities

India is the most culturally and linguistically diverse country in the world (Anantmurthy, 2000). The twelve-volume publication of Linguistic Survey of India by Sir George Grierson published between 1903 and 1923 identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. However, according to 1961 census, there were 1,652 mother tongues classified under 105 languages which belong to four language families: the Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibetan and Astro-Asiatic (Anantmurthy, 2000). Ninety of these 105 languages are spoken by less than 5 percent of India’s population. At present Indians speak several varieties of 18 constitutionally recognized languages. Each one has produced a literature of great vitality and richness. Some Indian languages have a long literary history, for example, Sanskrit literature is over 5,000 years old and Tamil over 3,000 years. Few languages do not have written forms like most "tribal" languages such as Bhili, Santhali, and Gondi. In modern India schools teach 58 languages, publish newspapers in 87, make radio programs in 71 and make films in 15. The Indian subcontinent consists of several separate linguistic communities each of which share a common language and culture. Though distinctive in parts, all stand for a homogeneous culture that is the essence of the great Indian literature. This is an evolution in a land of myriad dialects. The number of people speaking each language varies greatly. For example, Hindi has more than 250 million speakers, but relatively few people speak Andamanese (CIIL Website).

Millar’s (2005) discussion on language, nation and power makes a distinction between nationalism and nationism. He defines nationalism as a sense of large-scale group identity with shared historical, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic identities, also known as ethnic nationalism. Nationism on the other hand is an attempt to form a collective identity form a disparate group of people. Nationist’s emphasize ‘unity in diversity of people’ and shared recent history, also known as civic nationism. From a linguistic point of view nationalism demands dominant ethnic group’s language as the national language, whereas nationism looks for a language whose use causes the least offence to the greatest number of citizens, and having large number of speakers, native or not, within the country. Let us now examine the case of multilingual and multicultural modern India through the Millar’s (2005) notions of nationalism and nationism.

The idea of Indian nation as envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore is different from the European idea of one nation, one language, one race, and one religion. India contains many ‘Indias’ which is evident in the literatures of all major Indian languages. Hence, people have very diverse opinion and understanding of India, one can say the exact opposite about India with equal truthfulness (Anantmurthy, 2000). Most Indians, including those not very literate, speak or at least understand two or more languages and these people have kept India together, not those who only know one language. Anantmurthy (2000) looks at historical use of Sanskrit and other Indian languages (bhashas) that has made a modern multilingual, multicultural, and united India in the following paragraphs.

“The spiritual insights and philosophical subtleties which marked Sanskrit, the language of elite classes, thus became a possession of Indian bhashas. Ever since the medieval period, these bhashas have been the conduits of egalitarian passion working through the history of India. It has been a continuous process of inclusion, and not a negation of any language; of Sanskrit in the past, or of the bhashas, or English later on.”

“In our times, English serves the communicative function that Sanskrit did in the past. Hence, Indian bhashas, which had earlier digested the essence of Sanskrit, today cope with the challenges of the west.”

I see clear evidence of elements of Millar’s (2005) nationalism and nationism in Indian linguistic scene. Nationalism has been prevalent in various regions of India but nationism unites the modern India which is emphasized by ‘unity in diversity’. This phenomenon can also be explained that there are many ‘Indias’ within India that coexist, flourish and each one of them proudly Indian. Thus, if one overstresses unity in India, then diversities begin to appear and assert themselves. In this context English is India’s nationist language and Hindi though officially India’s national language has not been accepted by all. This issue will be further discussed in the language policy and planning in India.

Language planning and policy

Ricento (2000) discusses historical and theoretical perspectives in language policy and planning (LPP). Historically LPP research is divided into three phases: firstly, decolonization, structuralism, and pragmatism, secondly, the failure of modernization, critical sociolinguistics, and access, and finally, the new world order, post modernism, and linguistic human rights. There are several elements of this LPP research framework that are found in the history and implementation of LPP in India.

How do Indians communicate among themselves within such a linguistically diverse environment? This question has always intrigued linguists and has been a challenge to language policy makers and planners. For centuries the social, religious, and political leadership in India has constantly debated this issue and still there is no solution that satisfies all (Anantmurthy, 2000). Since independence from the Great Britain in 1947, the "language question" has become a sensitive political issue in India. Any consensus on a single national language acceptable to all language communities has been unsuccessful. Many Indian nationalists originally intended that Hindi would replace English - the language of British rule (1757-1947) - as a medium of common communication, but this idea has never been accepted by all. Schiffman (2000) offers an excellent review of the genesis of language policy in India and analyzes the Indian linguistic culture in its historical perspective.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British official in India implemented his ‘Minute on Education’ in 1935 that declared that government funds will be used to support English education and curriculum will based on that of England. This was intended to impose English on multilingual Indians with the sole objective to create an English-speaking elite among Indians through them it would be easy to govern the Indian masses. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a famous leader and social reformer in 19th century India was a great proponent of English and western education in India. Evans (2002) critically looks at this colonial language policy in 19th century India in detail and discusses both pros and cons of this policy for Indians. The Indian National Congress, a political organization which spearheaded the freedom movement in India had discussed language policy in their national meeting in 1920. Language policy was a major issue once India gained independence in 1947 and a new language policy was framed in 1950 that was revised in 1965 widely known as ‘three language formula’ described below.

The Indian constitution (Articles 343 through 351) states that the use of Hindi, English, and regional languages will continue indefinitely for official purposes. Hindi was designated India's official language, although many impediments to its official use still remain. It promotes a nationwide use of Hindi while guaranteeing the use of minority languages at the state and local levels. Regional languages are an issue even now in the politically charged atmosphere surrounding language policy. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, attempts were made to redraw state boundaries to coincide with linguistic usage.

Popularity of Hindi cinema has played a vital role in spreading Hindi in India. Movement of people outside their linguistic communities for work, employment and business has also made Hindi popular among non-Hindi speakers. Hindi is gradually becoming a lingua-franca of India. Non-Hindi speaking educated Indians use both Hindi and English for communication.

Prevalence of diglossia and triglossia

Ferguson (1959) defined Diglossia as a context where a standardized high variety (H) and a vernacular low variety (L) of a language exist and each has a definite role to play in a given society. To control its accuracy constant attempts are made for structural control of the H variety, a kind of `status' planning, in that it regulates the status of the H variety, and not that of the L-variety. L-variety language remains unregulated in terms of its status and its corpus. Diglossias typically have concern for purity of a language and uniformity at the high level, but ignore the linguistic habits at the lower level. This system thus unites the well-known diversity-within-unity paradox that India is famous for, that is, unity at the top (H), overt level, and diversity at the unofficial L-variety level. The notion of ‘sociolects’ described as ‘high’ and ‘low’ varieties of Copenhagen speech used by Danish people (Kristiansen, 2003). Similarly distinct ‘sociolects’ exist in the Indian urban settings because of diglossia. Socially stratified communities use either H or L form of a language.

Broad diglossia (BD) of Fishman (1967) expands this concept to include different languages that can serve different purposes within the same community. Thus, it suggests a dynamic relationship between diglossia and bilingualism. Thus, BD licenses linguistic diversity at the grass- roots level. Broad diglossia and bilingualism are prevalent in Indian society especially among cities. Most educated Indians are trilingual in the non-Hindi speaking regions of India. They speak their native language, Hindi as India’s national language and English. Here diglossia occurs in the H and L form of their native language. Triglossia exists when three languages with varying and overlapping roles interact: first the vernacular, second the local lingua franca or the national language and third English (Abdulaziz Mkilifi, 1972). This form of triglossia exists in most urban centers of Hindi speaking region where people speak both the vernacular and standard Hindi along with English. The use and all three languages are carried out for very distinct functions in society.

Polyglossia and a case for multiglossia

Homes (2001) discusses the notion of polyglossia where a community regularly uses both high and low varieties of two languages for distinct purposes. She explains this notion with examples of Singaporeans using both informal (L) and formal (H) varieties of English and Chinese in their daily lives, similarly immigrants from Portugal in England using both formal and informal Portuguese and English. In these cases, code switching, and code mixing are very common. Such a polyglossic situation can be observed in most Indian metropolitan cities with a more complex linguistic situation. In urban centers of non-Hindi speaking regions a different form of triglossia and polyglossia exists where most people use H and L varieties of their native language and speak Hindi and English in their H and L forms. I propose to define this situation as multiglossia. This notion can be exemplified with linguistic cultures of Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.


High (Formal): Marathi English Hindi

Low (Informal): Marathi English Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Haryanvi, Oudhi,

Maithili and several other Hindi dialects

New Delhi

High (Formal): Punjabi English Hindi

Low (Informal): Punjabi English Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Haryanvi, Oudhi,

Maithili and several other Hindi dialects


High (Formal): Bengali English Hindi

Low (Informal): Bengali English Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Haryanvi, Oudhi,

Maithili and several other Hindi dialects


High (Formal): Tamil: English: Hindi: Telugu: Kannada: Malayalam: Marathi: Bengali

Low (Informal): Tamil: English and most of other south Indian languages

Historically people in India have communicated with each other because they knew more than one language or at least partly understood more than two or three languages. Anantmurthy (2000) considers such people to have kept India as one country. Since 1947 after India’s independence massive migration of people has occurred within the country form one part to the other in search for employment, business opportunities, education, and personal choice. This has created unique multilingual and multicultural cities where people have come to understand each other far better now than in the past due mainly to the intermingling and absolute necessity for mutual communication. As a matter fact most metropolitan cities in India have people working and living from all corners of the country, but their proportions may vary significantly. In cities like Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata, there are large populations who speak various dialects of Hindi, whereas in Chennai in south India, Hindi speakers are far less than the speakers of other south Indian languages like Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam who use both the formal and informal forms of their language. This multiglossic situation in Indian metropolitan cities can be correlated to the geographical distribution of languages in India. The Indian government’s policy of three language formula too has facilitated in the creation of multiglossic situation in Indian metropolitan cities.

Is Mumbai a Cosmopolis?

Many cities are multilingual islands that have a relatively monolingual hinterland or relatively monolingual zones (Gupta, 2000). Most Indian cities will qualify as multilingual islands. Such cities are referred to as Cosmopolis. Thus, Cosmopolis are congregations of multiplicity of ethnolinguistic groupings without a single dominant ethnolinguistic group (Gupta, 2000). The separation of ethnolinguistic groups leads to fewer bilingual individuals, but greater the integration the more risk there is of the loss of cosmopolis. The cosmopolis tends to create a culture of multilingualism, which contrasts with the culture of monolingualism. Loss of cosmopolis can occur if in due course of time one ethnolinguistic group becomes dominant.

Gupta (2000) says that Mumbai may maintain the features of cosmopolis over centuries. Most probably Mumbai might have been a cosmoplois in the past but modern Mumbai does not appear to be a cosmopolis. It is true that this great city has multiple ethnolinguistic groups, but due to constant interbreeding of different ethnolinguistic groups, movement of people in and out of the city, and all kinds of people living and working together have had a linguistically homogenizing effect on the population. ‘Mumbai Hindi’ is typical local dialect of Hindi, which is widely spoken and understood by a great majority of people. This Hindi dialect has developed over centuries, and borrows words from Marathi, Gujarati, and several south Indian languages. Thus ‘Mumbai Hindi’ has become a local lingua franca. It is spoken in distinct form because it is used by those who are outside the ethnolinguistic community thus it is also changing the sociolinguistic meaning.


Abdulaziz Mkilifi, M. H. (1972). Triglossia and Swahili-English bilingualism in Tanzania. Language in Society, I, p. 197-213.

Anantmurthy, U. R. (2000). Towards a concept of new nationhood: Languages and literatures in India. In. Contemporary India: Transitions. (Ed. P. R. de Souza), New Delhi, Sage Publications.

CIIL Website (http://www.

Evans, S. (2002). Macaulay’s minute revisited: Colonial language policy in 19th century India. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 23(4): 260-281. (

Fishman, J. A. (1967). Bilingualism with and without diglossia; diglossia with and without bilingualism. Journal of Social Issues, 23: 29-38.

Gupta, A. F. (2000). Bilingualism in cosmopolis. International Journal of Sociology of language, 142, 107-119.

Homes, J. (2001). An introduction to sociolinguistics. Longman, 2nd Ed. P. 264.

Iyengar, K.R. S. (1973). Indian Writing in English. Bombay, Asia Publishing House. 2nd Edition.

Joseph, B. (2004). Reading the East India Company, 1720-1840; Colonial Currencies of Gender. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Kachru, Braj. (1983). The Indianization of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kachru, Braj. (1986). The Alchemy of English: The spread, functions and models of non-native Englishes. New York: Pergamon Press Inc.

Kristiansen, T. (2003). Language attitudes and language policy in Denmark. International Journal of Sociology of Language, 159, p. 51-71.

Naik, M. K. (1982). A History of Indian English Literature. New Delhi, Sahitya Academy.

Millar, R. M. (2005). Language, Nation and Power, (pp. 1-8). New York, Palgrave.

Ricento, T. (2000). Historical and theoretical perspectives in language policy and planning. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4(2): 196-213.

Schiffman, H. (2000). Indian linguistic culture and the genesis of language policy in the subcontinent. (

Verghese, C. P. (1971). Problems of the Indian Creative Writer in English. Bombay, Somaiya Publications.


Arun Kumar Ph. D.

I am a semi-retired geologist, presently affiliated with Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. During my almost five decades long career I worked around the world. Now I live in Ottawa, the beautiful capital city of Canada.

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